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26 September 2018
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Gordonstoun, the boarding school for children who like a challenge

Hello from autumnal Oxfordshire!
Today we’d like to tell you about Gordonstoun, a boarding school in northern Scotland. We visited the school again only last week and absolutely loved it.
Gordonstoun has a unique ethos and its focus on developing pupils’ soft skills such as grit, team-working, problem-solving and courage felt 100% genuine to us.
But let’s start by dispelling a myth: Gordonstoun, despite it’s far-north location is really easy to reach. Some a parent we suggest this school to turns to us, eyebrows arched, and mumbles something about “too far in the sticks” and “no civilized people could live there surely!”.
Let us tell us that this isn’t true.
Located one hour’s drive from two international airports in Aberdeen and Inverness, we found Gordonstoun a lot easier to get to than many of the English boarding schools further south. Moreover, the school organises a regular transit by bus at key travel times before and after the holidays. Lastly, the 150-acre estate with its lush green meadows and impressive stone buildings is stunning.
This school is very well worth a visit!
the main entrance to the school
Quite an introduction
Our visit at Gordonstoun started at 8am as we attended School Chapel together with 500 pupils. And yet, we were not here to pray.
Far from it.
What we heard that morning could not have been a better introduction to the spirit of the school.
A young man called Steve Bate gave an extraordinary account of his adventures climbing the infamous ‘El Capitan’ sheer face in Yosemite National Park, one of the hardest climbs on earth. This is an amazing feat under any circumstances. Steve, however completed the climb after being diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition retinitis pigmentosa, which meant he could go blind within four years. Like any normal human being he was crushed by the news. Steve, however, picked himself up and with dogged perseverance devoted himself to some of the most difficult physical challenges possible. The result? Climbing one of the toughest rock faces imaginable and winning a gold medal for cycling at the Paralympics in Rio.
Steve told us his secret: break down any challenge no matter how big into realistic, digestible bite-size chunks of hourly practice.
(Here’s a quick video on him in case you are interested
Wowed by this inspirational talk, the pupils were released into their day.
The school's credo
“Plus et en vous” – there’s more in you.
Steve Bate’s talk nicely sums up Gordonstoun’s ethos in a nutshell: challenge yourself.
It was with this very idea in mind that Kurt Hahn, Gordonstoun’s founder created the school. Hahn recognised that education needed a broader definition – one that would go beyond the classroom and educate the ‘whole person’. This would be achieved by pupils being impelled to challenge themselves, to show them what they are really capable of.
Challenging yourself – in and outside of the classroom
The school offers pupils a compelling mix of amazing extracurricular activities, academic pursuits and local and international social impact projects, which allows students to do exactly that - challenge themselves.
Many of these activities are compulsory, so the academic and extracurricular are part of one integrated experience, which makes life at Gordonstoun all the more exciting, intense, and challenging.
A shelf full of outdoors gear, a common sight in the school's boarding houses
So what does this mean in practice?
Take the outdoors experience. With Gordonstoun’s stunning rural location, this, of course, is key. The school regularly organises expeditions where pupils go hiking and camping for a week in the Scottish highlands - sometimes completely unguided - and have to learn to cope. Our tour-guide for the day Tom told us of how getting lost, solving problems and working together as a team really pushes you beyond your comfort zone.
A photograph of the school's own sailboat the Ocean Spirit
Another other key event in Gordonstoun’s calendar is the 5-day sailing trip on the school's own boat the Ocean Spirit. This is where pupils learn to work together in a group of 16, sailing down the Irish coast. Not everyone looks forward to this experience: Tom told us he was scared stiff for weeks before the trip as he suffers from sea-sickness. Ultimately he loved the trip though. He was amazed by what you can achieve if you give new – and scary – things a chance!
An international outlook
Gordonstoun is currently home to pupils from 46 countries. This amazingly diverse community allows pupils to learn about different cultures. It makes them respectful, tolerant and informed global citizens. But it doesn’t stop here. The school runs social impact projects in Romania, Ethiopia and Thailand. Pupils help to build schools and orphanages there. They get deep insights into the challenges on the ground. They even have to raise money for everything including their own flight tickets. All this is as Kurt Hahn intended: get children to connect with a world outside their privileged bubble life. This will raise them to be responsible, tolerant, active global citizens.
In a world that is in danger of moving in the other direction at the moment, this strikes us as vitally important!
Music is an important part, too
Learning to take responsibility
Another focus of the school is to teach children to take responsibility – for themselves and others. From organizing regular social events and cleaning local beaches, to becoming a member of the local fire brigade or the lifeguard squad, pupils are asked to take positions of responsibility. The results are noticeable: parents tell us how their kids return from Gordonstoun after the first term, suddenly all grown-up, thoughtful and responsible.
An insight into a Gordonstoun student ;-)
And finally…
Gordonstoun is wonderful school. It is A school that really gets pupils to challenge themselves as well as adopt an open and tolerant attitude to the world we live in!
Some interesting facts
  • Cost per term: £11,974
  • 90% full boarding
  • Pupil mix ratio: 1/3 Scots, 1/3 Brits, 1/3 International
  • 550 pupils in total, 42 nationalities
  • A sporty school with loads outdoors activities from climbing to kayaking and sailing, but also your rugby, hockey and cricket
  • It has a great dance studio and very active dance department
  • Gordonstoun is an accredited Green School
  • The school has an adventure activity license. The only school in the UK with one of these!
Want to read about other boarding schools? Have a look here:

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